Thursday, February 24, 2011

Big Apple Circus in Tricky Transition: Owners, Not "Artistic Directors," Chart the Course, Make the Difference

When the future of Ringling-Barnum hung by a thread in 1956, a humbled John Ringling North hired back Art Concello, above, granting him the authority of virtual owner to move the circus from the tents to the arenas. A brilliant move.

The departure of Gary Dunning as executive director of Big Apple Circus raises some pressing issues that circus companies, by and large, do not face.

Big Apple's operating mode is an anomaly. It has increasingly relied on corporate charity (aka: "funding") for needed revenue. Paul Binder, de facto symbolic owner, had a fine lucky streak of lush fund raising, which he used to build up an incredibly complex, incredibly overstaffed "non profit" company. The funding binge has dried up, and the show is now stuck at the ticket windows hurting for sufficient cash to sustain its operation, more important, its upscale New York reputation. And there are less folks -- at least beyond New York city -- eager to spend a few hours under the tent.

Which makes the now-struggling show alone in its predicament. Yes, other troupes, like Circus Flora, also rely on local community support. But they are very small and play out very short seasons compared to the institution developed by Binder and co-founder Michael Christensen. Let's not forget they have been going for 30-plus seasons. But, without Binder?

I can think of no circus in this country that has done well for very long using the BAC non-profit structure. A circus is not a symphony or ballet company permanently anchored to one city where its artists live and in which it presents, year around, the majority of its performances. A circus is a band of gypsies who rely on a multitude of dates across a wide geographical swatch.

Art Concello once told me that the circus "is an animal that labor does not fit into." Same goes, I think, for the circus as being an animal not practically operated by a traditional non-profit performing arts entity.

While BAC searches to find a new executive director, itself theoretically the most critical position (the closest to owner), the new artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy stands to enjoy additional clout. And he needs to work fast while he does, that is assuming he has strong artistic designs that stand a chance of reversing declining ticket sales. Based on lackluster response to his first fully self-directed outing, Dance On!, this seems a long shot.

What do Barbara Byrd, John Ringling North II, Johnny Pugh, Cedric Walker, Guy Laliberte all have in common? They are all circus owners. Their word is final. They do not report to boards. They hire artistic directors to serve their visions, brilliant or banal. Under this arrangement, the owner is forced to make decisions in a constant battle to "make nut," as they say. The owner, indeed, is in closer touch with retail realities, and therefore better positioned to stay corporately afloat. I assume that Binder grew to rely too much on the next fund-raising venture on the calendar to bring in that long hoped for miracle donation.

Dunning (credited for effective fund-raising until the Great Recession arrived) came from the world of dance, from the non-profit performance groups whose existence depends as much upon the kindness of corporate America as it does on the number of tickets sold. In the wake of Paul Binder's recent retirement, Dunning made waves about shaking up the show artistically and even extending its touring reach far and wide. I would love to have seen both goals reached. But Mr. Dunning harbored some oddball ambitions, like the rock and roll show that caused a mini riot, got closed down and deepened Big Apple's debts. Now he leaves to head up Celebrity Series of Boston, touted as "New England's leading performing arts presenter."

Unfortunately, or so it would appear from tepid reviews and consumer feedback, Dufresnoy's first effort, Dance On! was far from a box-office hit. Possibly the board decided to blame Dunning more than Dufresnoy.

Which would be considered a practical reaction in the real world of big top survival. Nobody really blames director Richard Barstow for the fall of Ringling under canvas in 1956, anymore than they would blame the current Ringling-Barnum "director" for the collapse of Feld Entertainment productions -- were that to occur. They blamed John Ringling North, just as they would blame Kenneth Feld.

The Big Apple Board has its work cut out for it; who to find out there who can carry on like an owner more than an "executive director," or, weaker yet, "artistic director."

They are facing their own John Ringling North 1956 moment; they need to find an Art Concello to put the pieces back together and make the thing run, just run.


Alan Cabal said...

Good riddance to bad rubbish. Dunning's tenure at the American Ballet Theatre is remembered as an unmitigated nightmare for the artists. Big Apple should have known better.

Anonymous said...

BAC could still be viable if they stripped the frou frou, like the huge lobby tent and the board of directors. If they maintained a strong program without being absurd about having coaches for every clowning gesture - i.e. two clowns who are already proficient is enough clowns for any one ring show.
They have the basis (equipment wise)for a beautiful show. Getting rid of the leeches (board of directors)could shave millions off the budget.
How about Coney Island? WITH ANIMALS

Alan Cabal said...

The Board of Directors isn't the only problem. The office staff is wildly overcompensated. Getting rid of Dunning is a good start. He was never as committed as his pedecessor, Jim McIntyre. McIntyre was truly irreplaceable.